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The Price of Luxury: The Controversial Aestheticism of Damien Hirst and Tobias Wong

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires
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Artists Damien Hirst and Tobias Wong recently unveiled controversial pieces that, in contrast with the anti-commercial work of their contemporaries, celebrate the luxury object. Do these artists represent a conservative strain in contemporary art that makes art complicit with commodity culture? Or is their work on luxury a modern expression of art-for-art’s sake, an aesthetic philosophy that argues for art’s immunity to sociopolitical critique?

Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull
Secretly ironic, Damien Hirst’s
diamond-studded skull
, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

In June 2007, as part of his exhibition “Beyond Belief” at the White Cube gallery in London, the celebrated British artist Damien Hirst unveiled amidst widespread controversy the most expensive artwork to date: a human skull encrusted with 8601 diamonds. Entitled “For the Love of God,” the piece was valued at £100m; Hirst’s asking price was an equally extravagant £99m. Unsurprisingly, the luxury-value of the skull was the focus of the extensive press coverage that surrounded its debut (1). In response to initial criticism, which contextualized the piece as a commentary on the commodification of art and bodies, Hirst’s own take was unexpected:

“I just wanted to celebrate life by saying to hell with death. What better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence? The only part of the original skull that will remain will be the teeth. You need that grotesque element for it to work as a piece of art. God is in the details and all that.(2)”

Against the critics who would read his work as a critique of excess and consumption, Hirst presents “For the Love of God” as a celebration of luxury. More provocatively, he does so using the rhetoric of humanism. The artist positions consumption (“luxury, desire and decadence”) as the “ultimate symbol” of humanity’s defiance of nature, or death. Dissociating his work from a strain of postmodern cultural critique that is also grounded in humanist concepts of empowerment and liberation, Hirst’s optimistic redefinition of consumption raises crucial questions about the deeply fraught relationship between art and commodity culture.

As his critics have pointed out, the targets of Hirst’s cultural commentary are as difficult to identify as the relevance of his fame, an ambiguity that has deepened as Hirst has become something of a commodity himself, a brand-name in the art world. Ossian Ward, writing on “For the Love of God” for Time Out London, charges the “once startlingly original Hirstian medicinal aesthetic” with having become “redundant through endless repetition and merchandising.(3)” Similarly, Ben Lewis of Prospect Magazine focuses his more mixed review of “For the Love of God” on the uncomfortable proximity of art and commercialism in the exhibit. He wonders why, if Hirst’s work “embodies the fact that art works have become the crown jewels of our age” that “its aesthetic value remains uncertain […] is ‘For the Love of God’ a gimmick: grotesquely extravagant in its execution and inane in its meaning?(4)” Ward and Lewis identify the central paradox of Hirst’s piece while revealing their implicit assumptions about the purpose of art in a global market where art is increasingly commodified. Does the commodification of art cancel out its potential for “startling” critique, as Ward implies? Does art’s “aesthetic value” depend, as Lewis suggests, on the extent to which it ironizes aesthetics through “meaning”? Or, to put it bluntly, can luxury – luxury on its own, luxury for luxury’s sake – be art?

If these are the questions “For the Love of God” poses to its viewer, they are not original ones. They may be ones that, until recently, have fallen out of favor among critics of art and culture. The urge to celebrate luxury or beauty for its own sake is most typically associated with the late-nineteenth century artistic and literary aesthetic or decadent movement in continental Europe and Britain. Against a rapidly expanding marketplace that, at best, subjected artistic control to the demands of the market and, at worst, marginalized artistic product, the aesthetes and decadents – among them Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans, Charles Baudelaire and early feminist Vernon Lee – sought refuge in an aesthetic philosophy that championed “art for art’s sake.” Hirst’s neo-aestheticism, articulated in the emphatic triumph of the natural (skull) by the artificial (diamonds), aligns him with the literary and artistic experiments of, in particular, Oscar Wilde, another artist who was frequently accused of branding his own name. Across Wilde’s vast corpus of critical, literary, and journalistic writing, Wilde positioned useless forms of experience – the highest of which was art – over and against the worlds of nature, politics, mimetic art, and the burgeoning institution of information.

Like Hirst’s, Wilde’s critical heritage is haunted by charges of empty formalism and political quietism. However, recent readings of Wilde have found in Wilde’s aestheticism a deep resentment of the increasingly indistinct border between art and the marketplace. Wilde effected cultural critique from a position that emphasizes the subversive potential of uselessness, or what French critic Georges Bataille termed “unproductive expenditure.(5)” Bataille insists that in contrast with the operations of “useful” and “productive” society, the unproductive phenomenon is insubordinate: it is undertaken not for the sake of something else, but for itself. “Luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, and perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality)” transgress social and political economies, forming a kind of useless excess (6). Art resists the market economy by its very wastefulness. Faced with the increasing pressure of commodification, the aesthetes placed an increasing emphasis on uselessness, surface, form, luxury. Transforming an object of utility into an object of excess, the Hirst of “Beyond Belief” emerges as an inheritor of a Wildean tradition concerned above all with championing useless forms of experience. In Wildean style, Hirst’s “For the Love of God” both recovers wasteful excess as a distinctly artistic value and utilizes it to critique the banality and indifference of nature. The “grotesque element” of the un-adorned teeth embody – in a fittingly hyperbolic way – the essential aestheticist hierarchy: the championing of useless art above useful nature.

Hirst’s experiments with art-for-art’s-sake, which paradoxically place him at both the centre and on the margins of commodity culture, are echoed in the work of Vancouver artist Tobias Wong, a figure who decidedly challenges the boundary between art and commercial design. In 2006, Wong collaborated with Ken Courtney on his design label Ju$t Another Rich Kid to produce the internationally acclaimed “Indulgences” series of lifestyle accessories. As the title implies, “Indulgences” featured symbols of contemporary commodity fetishism repurposed as objects of luxury. A 1970s McDonald’s stir stick, dipped in gold, is marketed as a coke spoon; gold-filled ingestible gel capsules are intended to make the consumer’s feces glitter. To expected criticism, the pieces retail at luxury prices, many up to thousands of dollars. Like Hirst, Wong was compelled to publicly dismiss interpretations that understood his work as an attack on commodity culture. Speaking of a pair of earrings he designed – pearls enclosed in rubber – he clarified:

“We all have this desire for having the best of something. But we’ve gotten to a point where you’re not really even appreciating the object. Pearls, having them rubber coated, leaves you as the only person who knows what you have underneath. There’s something nice about having $5,000 earrings on. There’s something even better about knowing that you’re the only one who knows.(7)”

Wong’s experiments with repurposing, which focus on the inherent pleasures of luxury and consumption, cast the artist as a critic of the contemporaneous post-punk DIY movement. As theorist George McKay has argued, DIY activist art relies on recycling and redesigning objects associated with corporate culture to signify the user’s distance from capitalist consumption (8). While DIY practitioners turn junk into utilitarian objects, artists such as Wong use similar techniques (inherited from Dada) of repurposing and appropriation to enhance the uselessness, or waste-factor of junk. The result is a post-DIY critique of repurposing, which, Wong suggests, evacuates aesthetics in favor of utility.

How tenable, however, is aestheticism in 2007? As more artists turn toward a celebration of luxury for its own sake, they must contend – as Hirst’s critics suggest – with the inevitable appropriation of their experiments into a mass marketplace. (“For the Love of God” is already a T-shirt available upon exit from the White Cube exhibition.) Also – and perhaps more importantly – they must contend with the expansion of this marketplace within a global economy. Can we afford art-for-art’s-sake in a global system whose conduits of political, social, and even aesthetic power are more myriad, less visible, and more intertwined than Wilde could have imagined? The thing about metaphor – and art is metaphor – is that it only works if everyone agrees on the meaning of its terms. And in a global economy, where individuals bring radically diverse cultural histories to their interpretations, terms such as “luxury, desire and decadence” are vulnerable to considerable slippage. How might “For the Love of God” appear to a viewer from Sierra Leone, a country where unlicensed diamond mining has continued to finance a brutal and ongoing civil war? Or to a Cambodian, where the images of skeletons piled up in Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in the late 1970s remain a tangible part of cultural memory? For this viewer, the skull might not be a symbol of death, but an image of death, a powerful memory more immediate than metaphor. The controversy surrounding Hirst points to not only an impasse in the art community between a new aestheticism and one wedded to a more recognizable form of post-modern critique, but to one between art and an ever-expanding and ever-intensifying network of human relationships.

References

(1) Riding, Alan. “Arts, Briefly; Skull for Sale, With Diamonds.” 2 June 2007. 5. July2007.<http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F05E3DF1030F931A35755C0A9619C8B63>
(2) O’Hagan, Sean. “Hirst’s diamond creation is art’s costliest work ever.” The Observer.
21 May 2006. <http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1779919,00.html>
(3) Ward, Ossian. “Damien Hirst”. Time Out London. 11 June 2007. <http://www.timeout.com/london/art/events/420771/damien_hirst.html>
(4) Lewis, Ben. “Doubting Damien”. Prospect Magazine. July 2007. <http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=9656>
(5) Bataille, Georges.“The Notion of Expenditure.” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl Lovitt, Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985. 116-130. 118.
(6) Ibid. 119.
(7) McKeough, Tim. “Dada Luxury.” The Walrus. October 2006. 5 July 2007. <http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.10-style-dada-luxury/>
(8) McKay, George. DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain. London: Verso, 1998.

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